Thursday, 5 March 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
In relation to today's business it is proposed that:
(1) Notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the only business to be taken today shall be as set out in the first revised report of the Business Committee, dated 3 March 2020, and there shall be no questions on promised legislation;
(2) The Dáil shall sit later than 8.03 p.m. and shall adjourn if there are no further speakers offering on statements on coronavirus, Covid-19, or at 8.30 p.m., whichever is the earlier;
(3) No. 4, motion re establishment of Standing Order 131 select committee, and No. 5, motion re Standing Orders 30, 100, 118A, 119, 120, 173, 178 and 219 and membership of the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform, shall be taken without debate and any division demanded thereon shall be taken immediately;
(4) No. 6, statements post European Council meeting of 20 to 21 February, pursuant to Standing Order 124, shall conclude within 3 hours 45 minutes, unless previously concluded. Statements shall be confined to two rounds, a questions and answer session and a wrap-up by the Minister. The opening round of statements of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups, or a member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each; the second round of statements for a Minister or Minister of State and parties and groups shall not exceed ten minutes each; a Minister or Minister of State shall take questions for a period not exceeding 20 minutes, with a five-minute response by a Minister or Minister of State, and all Members may share time;
(5) No. 7, statements on coronavirus, Covid-19, shall adjourn if there are no further speakers offering or at 8.30 p.m., whichever is the earlier. The opening statements of a Minister or Minister of State shall not to exceed 20 minutes and the statements of the main spokespersons of parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each, with five minutes for all other Members and a five-minute response from a Minister or Minister of State. All Members may share time;
(6) The Dáil on its rising shall adjourn until 2 p.m. on Thursday, 19 March 2020.
I am aware of the discussions at the committee earlier today. I wrote to the Ceann Comhairle in respect of the Dáil establishing an all-party committee on the Covid-19 virus. I am strongly of the view that this is necessary, particularly if the Dáil is not going to sit for another two weeks. We are in the unusual situation of being in an interregnum period where, by convention, significant policy decisions are not taken by a Government. I think it is a requirement, if there are to be significant policy decisions which may well be necessitated by the unfolding situation regarding the virus, that there would be political underpinning of the legitimacy of those decisions. For that reason, although I welcome the fact that there will be statements, I am of the view that the Dáil should consider establishing an all-party committee to discuss as well as agree any future policy decisions that might be required to combat the virus.
I want to speak in support of the principle that this House should meet in whatever form. Doing so may be complex, technical or present difficulties, but in light of the scale of possible responses that we may have to resort to, and, in particular, without a new Government in place, democratic engagement is needed in order to assist the administrative system in whatever needs to be done. That may be difficult and complex in terms of working out the mechanism involved but I absolutely agree with the principle Deputy Howlin has set out.
I also support that principle for a number of reasons. First, I acknowledge that public health officials are working under incredible strain and stress and are flat out in terms of dealing with all of the implications of a public health crisis of this kind, and a potential pandemic.
It would be useful if a mechanism could be found within the existing technical or constitutional framework to have an Oireachtas committee, for a number of reasons. The psychology of a public health scare is at times as important as the scare itself. We have spoken to Deputies on our side in our parliamentary party who have already experienced cases in their constituencies. Basically, the phone explodes. That is how one Deputy articulated it. There is much concern and there are many queries for public representatives. If coherence is to emerge from the political system, to help the Government and public health officials, in particular, it would make sense to have a mechanism that would allow Deputies and other Members of the Oireachtas to engage, keep people making decisions and have an exchange of views that would be helpful rather than undermine the current efforts.
Before I call the other three other Deputies who are offering to contribute, I wish to help with the discussion. Deputy Howlin's proposal was considered seriously this morning. There was a view that the officials leading this need to devote their entire attention to leading the campaign. There was a very strong view that should the Government require the moral authority of this Dáil to embark on any particular action, the Dáil would respond immediately to support it in whatever initiative is envisaged. I call Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.
We need to be careful in the mechanism we choose for the purposes the Deputies have set out. I share the view of the Business Committee that all the time, attention and resources of those at the front line of this emergency need to be spent on keeping the public safe. That said, we have a caretaker Government. It is absolutely essential that those of us on the other benches not be left as an afterthought when policy decisions are being made. For our part, we want absolute assurance that everything that needs to be done is being done to ensure capacity, including in terms of intensive care, the containment phase isolation units and the discharging of well people from hospital. In this regard, we should consider home help and the gross shortfall in home help hours. In other words, we want to have access to information. We also want to influence, in an appropriate and entirely constitutional way, the very big decisions that will be made on this matter. I am not convinced that an Oireachtas committee is the best vehicle for that but I am aware that the current arrangement is absolutely deficient, whereby we are hearing about most grave matters of serious public importance after they appear in the media. That needs to be fixed. We can find a mechanism other than a formal committee to do this but it needs to be done speedily.
I am speaking on behalf of the Rural Independent Group. We had a discussion on this matter this morning. As the Ceann Comhairle said, we need a response and a vehicle to be able to respond. That vehicle is here. It is about time we got on with it and formed a Government, without having a period of flux without any real Government. We have a Government but its members are only operating in an acting capacity. We need to focus minds because this is a serious issue.
As the Ceann Comhairle pointed out, there was a very detailed discussion of this proposal at the Business Committee meeting today. A unanimous decision was taken that it would not be in the interest of dealing with it to set up an Oireachtas committee. The main thinking behind that was based on the acceptance of the view that it would not be good to absorb significant amounts of the time of senior public health officials by having them come in here to meetings of a committee and that what we need are good, reliable and timely advice and briefings on the situation as it is emerging and changing from day to day. A briefing was arranged through the Minister for Health at 12 noon today for all party health spokespersons. It was a very worthwhile session. There were senior officials present. They made themselves available to answer detailed questions and clarify information already in the media. Having contacted the Minister for Health, I understand there is a commitment to provide briefings as often as is necessary.
I welcome the establishment of a cross-departmental group under the Taoiseach's office. It has been suggested that briefings be provided to other parties after each meeting of that group. I think that is the sensible and best way forward. We should adhere to the decision of the Business Committee from earlier today. In the event of emergency legislation or the endorsement of this House for any proposal being required at any point, I have no doubt that all Members will make themselves available to return here at short notice.
Deputy Kelly is offering but I am sorry I cannot take a contribution from him. This time is only for party leaders and the Deputy is not, at this point, the leader of the Labour Party.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I also thank the Deputies for their suggestions and measured responses. This is a matter no one will want to politicise in the weeks and months ahead and it may well go on for many months. The Business Committee made a wise decision in not advocating for a full Oireachtas committee at this stage. We have a relatively small number of very competent and hard-working health officials, including the Chief Medical Officer and his team, some people in the HSE and some other senior public health officials. While this issue has become very topical in the last week or two, these officials have been working flat out on this issue since January. Many of them have not even taken a weekend off since then. We need them to be able to focus on their jobs and also get some rest. We also need to ensure they do not spend all their time being held to account instead of doing their job. I know we have to get that balance right and there has to be a balance.
Regarding what is being done, there have been, and there will continue to be, briefings for party spokespersons on health. Indeed, there was one today. There will also be a weekly briefing for all Members in the audiovisual room. This will be for people who get constituency queries and want a mechanism to funnel those queries to people who can answer them. They are not always politicians; in fact, they are usually not. The weekly briefing in the audiovisual room will, therefore, be to assist Members and their staff with such queries.
The Government took a decision this week to establish a Cabinet sub-committee that will meet for the first time on Monday, under my chairmanship. The senior officials' group behind that has already met twice. A stakeholders' group has also been established so that we can keep in touch with and inform employers, unions, civil society and others in advance of decisions being announced. That group has already met and will meet again. In addition, it has been signalled to the HSE - I spoke to the CEO of the HSE today - that necessary resources, over and above its budget for this year, will be provided to allow it to take whatever actions are necessary to contain Covid-19 in Ireland. For example, the decision was taken today to open any closed intensive care unit, ICU, beds. As it happens, no patient has yet needed an ICU bed, but it is still a good precaution to prepare for that eventuality and to make more isolation facilities available, as needed. The Cabinet sub-committee has been set up and the stakeholders' group has already met. The HSE has been given the green light to use additional resources, staff and financial, as needed so that we are able to contain Covid-19 for as long as we can.
It is also worth reminding the House that under the Constitution, the Government continues until a new one is elected. The terms "caretaker" and "acting" are not used in the Constitution. The Government continues until a new Government is elected to replace it and it continues to have full executive authority. We are mindful, however, that it is a political convention that no major new policy decisions, public appointments or financial allocations will be made without consulting the Opposition parties. That will be done. I am happy to give exactly that assurance. It may be necessary to come to this House to seek legislative changes. We will be able to clarify that on Monday. We have strong legislation regarding public health and we do not believe, at this stage, that it needs to be enhanced. We may need to enhance legislation on employment and social protections so that people are not disincentivised if they are asked to self-isolate. We will have clarity on that, most likely on Monday after the Cabinet sub-committee meets. It is possible for the House to legislate before a new Government is elected if we have consensus on legislation and that is the basis on which we will operate.
I agree with the decision for the reasons outlined. Public health officials need to concentrate on addressing the crisis rather than spending unnecessary time at committee meetings.
As I said at the Business Committee today, I welcome the Taoiseach's comments about briefings. There also needs to be provision, however, for parties, groups and whatever to put forward proposals in the Dáil that will be facilitated if it becomes necessary. For example, I believe there should be no two-tier system operating in the health service if we are trying to identify extra capacity such as intensive care unit, ICU, capacity, bed capacity or isolation units. The two-tier system simply should not operate. Private hospital capacity, which might be useful in addressing this crisis or for preparing for it, should be immediately made available. Any financial or other obstacles which might prevent individuals from taking the advice given by health professionals in terms of self-isolation or any other matter must be removed immediately. There should be no impediment to people doing what the HSE and public health officials are telling them to do. If we need motions or legislation passed in the Dáil, the Government needs to be open to proposals from all sides of the House and facilitate such proposals in the Dáil next week.
I welcome the fact a Cabinet sub-committee has been set up and that we are not forming another committee. However, I want to put this matter in context. Most Members are in receipt of a letter from 4 March from Fórsa on capacity. It stated:
The scale of the closure orders in relation to primary care is a significant shock to the overall health system in the west. It is unprecedented and I have not witnessed that scale of service closure in my two decades working as a trade union official... More patients will end up in hospital for longer because they cannot be discharged or fully avail of...services.
I will not read out the two pages of the letter in the interests of brevity. However, it clearly points out that we have a current crisis and that there are major closures planned in primary care. We are talking about capacity concerning this virus. We need to get real and put it in perspective. There is a crisis as is.